Just Hit 'Send' - The Happy Years

by Grasshopper

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Ch. 11

Mrs. Kessell peered out her white lace curtains at the house across the street. A good woman, a Christian woman, a widow of two years who attended church every Sunday, gave food to the needy, worried about her children and prayed every night for the world to be a safe place again.

Her husband, George, had been a stern man, unbendable if it wasn't within his strict moral value code. Mary Kessell had moved directly from being her father's daughter to her husband's wife. No in between, no search for herself in all the years of her life. Their beliefs, their values had been hers.

She remembered the former owners, the older man, Mr. Collins, in the wheelchair, and his companion, Mr. Treadway. She and her husband had watched the beautiful house on the beach being built and she had often gone over in the twilight, after the builders had driven away, to just walk through the rooms. As the house neared completion, she would wait until the man in overalls, covered with bright splashes of paint left in his old jeep and she would go to see his work. She loved the big room with the murals of other countries, places she would never see. She longed to ask about them. She knew she never would.

Her husband said they couldn't associate with the men because they were not good Christian people. He showed her passages in the bible that he said made them bad. George called them 'queers' and other nasty names. She cringed whenever he used those words, but Mary never said anything, never argued. She knew, in her heart, that she didn't feel that way, but, for Mary Kessell, there was no rocking of the boat, no show of strength. She lived in her husband's world just as she had lived in her father's.

When Mr. Treadway died, she had wanted to take a casserole over as she always did for grieving people, but her husband had forbidden her. He said they were blasphemers and she was not to help in any way. He said other things that Mary couldn't accept...that Mr. Treadway was in hell and that Mr. Collins would be there soon enough. Mary always wanted to argue that her God, the God that loved all his creations, would not punish someone for being what he had created. Her God was a loving God. Her God had made a place for Mr. Treadway.

She longed to say that she wondered how God would look at George Kessell when he stood before the gates, but she never did. Would it have done a bit of good?

Mary watched the quiet take over the house across the street, saw the day Mr. Collins was taken away. She never knew where he went; to his family she hoped. They had never spoken, but she hoped he was happy.

The house across the street stood empty for over a year. She found that she missed the wondering. Her life became more insular. George became ill. He died one day, digging weeds in the garden. Everyone said it was a good thing; that he was with God now. Mary wondered what he had said when he had finally met Mr. Treadway; if he had been ashamed.

She watched the cars drive along the street and the sun rise every morning over the ocean. She walked through the yard of the house and sat on the beach side porch to watch the gulls swoop and soar. She even peeped in the windows, into her favorite room, to see the sun turn the scenes of Tuscany and Paris and Monterey to gold. There had been love in this house, Mary was sure of it, so much more than in hers.

Regret filled her. She felt a loneliness in this beautiful house now, in these rooms, as if they were waiting.

One day, as she swept the light dusting of snow off of her front porch, a car drove up and three people climbed out. What a beautiful family, all that blond hair and spirit, all that excitement and joy. She could hear the voices as they drifted across the street.

"It's perfect, Jordy!"
"It's just like the painting!"
"Daddy, Prince Sadness will come now?"

She watched the beautiful little boy race all around the yard, his mittened hands waving and his tasseled wool cap bobbing. He found the ramp and she could see him run up and down. She wondered if the house had found new people. Mary felt very protective of the house across the street. Watching these three, she hoped so.

She watched one morning a few days later when they came back with another tall handsome young man and, Mary smiled, Mr. Collins. She was so glad to see that he was still well and wondered what they would all decide.

The U-Haul trailer answered her questions a few days later. She watched the two young men carry a few heavy pieces of furniture into the already furnished house.

"Markie, grab the lamp."
"JD, stay close."
"Jordy, where's the blue throw rug?"

Mary heard their names and watched them begin to settle in. To her happiness, she saw them bring Mr. Collins back home. It appeared that he was going to live there too. Were they family? Was one of the bright beautiful children his child?

Over the months that followed, Mary Kessell would watch, trying to put the pieces together. Sometimes, one of the family across the street would wave and smile. The tall blond young man with the bright green eyes would call out, "Morning, Ma'am," and smile a friendly smile. He didn't seem to actually live there, but he was there a lot, picking up the little boy or bringing him home. Mary figured that he must be the young woman's first husband and the little boy's father. It was good to know that they were all able to keep the peace for the child's sake.

Mary wanted to know them. She wanted to know what it was about that house that seemed to make everyone smile. She couldn't figure out who belonged with whom, but then, in any ways that mattered, they all seemed to belong to each other. The little boy, JD they called him, would go off hand in hand with either young man or the young lady and she saw him frequently walking with Mr. Collins as he wheeled himself down the quiet street.

Then, one night, lots of music and scurrying around signaled a party and new people were added to the equation. Mary watched the blond young man, Jordy, carry a slight, curly-haired blindfolded fellow into the back yard. She watched a very tall handsome black man step out onto the porch and talk quietly with the young woman, Markie, and the other young man. They were laughing and hugging.

Mary kept her schedule. She went to church, bought her groceries, watered her plants, and cooked her solitary meals for one. She had no purpose in her life. She found herself, more and more, wondering about the day to day goings on and hoping they were all well. She found that her protective feelings for the house across the street now extended to the family. She didn't know their whole names. They smiled and waved, but had their lives to live.

Mary grieved when she saw the ambulance and realized that Mr. Collins had died. She so hoped that he was with Mr. Treadway now. She hoped that they were in a different part of heaven from the people like her husband, who never trusted what they didn't understand. She did carry a casserole over and spoke her sadness for a few moments with the young man who introduced himself as Griffin. She declined to come in and hurried home. She wanted so to know them, but was too shy to stay. The next day, the young lady brought the casserole dish back filled with homemade cookies. She introduced herself as Markie and the little boy as her son, JD.

The tall black man brought a beautiful girl to the house. Mary could tell they were in love. He seemed to bring stray children from somewhere too. Every time Mary turned around, another boy had appeared and they all seemed to belong, in some way, to the man they called Easy. What kind of name was that?

The house across the street pulled Mary's heart. The people lived lives she envied because hers seemed to have evaporated like smoke from a wood fire. She knew they would call her nosey, snoopy, even rude, but still she watched. They seemed to live in ways she didn't understand. One day, perhaps, she would know them. Perhaps she might be able to hold out her hand.


Danny climbed over the tangle of legs, his braces out of his reach. The can of soda he held sploshed onto Jordan's arm and drizzled down the side of the sofa. "Shit!" he groaned.

Jordan laughed, "JD, move so Papa D can get up."

JD wriggled his bottom over and moved his squirmy legs. "Papa D said 'shit', Daddy."

Jordan rolled his eyes. Markie had started this idiot cuss jar. They had to put a dollar in it every time they said a cuss word in front of the munchkin. He had put a few in for all his "Fuck me's", and Griff griped cause he just rolled with "Fuck me, Freddy", but Dan was clearly winning the jar award. The word 'shit' just flew out for almost no reason at all.

Dan sighed, "Get my wallet, you cuss patrol monster." JD ran off, giggling, to collect the dollar.

"You gotta help me with this, Jordy."

Jordan grinned. "Huh? It's not me with the potty mouth."

Danny hung his head in mock shame, "I have been bad." He peeked out from under those long lashes, his dimples flashing.

"Hmmm, I suppose that calls for pretty strong punishment later," Jordan laughed. He reached out to tickle Danny, and caught him right in the spot below his ribs that made him crazy. "Jordy, Jordy, stop, I give, Jordy, shit, I can't..............,"

"Papa D.....that's 'nother 'shit'," JD crowed, his grin widening.

"Oh, um, darn it all," Danny said, his chest heaving from the laughter. He reached for his wallet and pulled out $2. "Here, go away now. You are like the shit police."

JD shrieked, 'That's more...............you said it more." He poked out his hand and wrinkled his nose. "Papa D, you say 'shit' lots."

Jordan frowned, "JD, you know you can't go around saying 'shit' or any of the other words."

"Why not, Daddy? I am a big boy. I can talk like you, yes?"

"What did Mommie teach you to say when you mess up?"

JD scrinched up his face. "She telled me to say, 'Oops'!"

"So, when you break something or fall down, you say 'Oops'?"

"Yep, Mommie says that be's kid cusses. She is right, Daddy?"

Jordan thought, 'Note to self: speak to Marks about the oops thing'.

"Yeah, 'oops' is plenty good enough for you, little man. You stick with the 'oops' for now. Besides, I think your Papa D's got 'shit' covered pretty good." He laughed and grabbed at Dan's arm.

At dinner that night, Dan reached for the salt and knocked over his tea glass. "Shit!" he muttered.

The next morning, backing out of the driveway, he almost ran over Fiddle. "Shit!" he groaned.

That night, helping JD fix his train track, he whacked his thumb with the hammer, bringing tears to his eyes and a resounding, "SHITSHITSHIT!!" to his lips.

JD looked at his Papa D. "Papa D, you said 'shit' 3 times."

Danny sighed and looked disgusted with himself, "Shit – oops!" he mumbled. "Sorry, Kiddo."

The next morning, at the breakfast table, JD poured the milk all over the tablecloth. "Shit-oops!" he said happily.

"Joshua Daniel," Markie corrected, "We don't say those words."

"But, Mommie, Papa D and me, we made a new word. It is not a bad word. It is a Papa D/JD word."

Markie looked at Dan. "Your ball game, word man."

Danny cut his eyes at Jordan, who was busily looking out the window. "Jordy?"

Jordan laughed, his eyes twinkling with mischief, "I don't know what the fuck you want me to say."

"Oh, Mommie, Daddy said the f word," JD giggled.

Markie scowled. "Stop this right now. We can't have JD running around cussing."

"Nope, we sure as hell can't," Griff chimed in.

"Men!" Markie growled. "JD, you go get washed up for school. You three, hahaha....not. I better not hear that little boy cussing. You'll all three be..... be grounded." She stomped away into the kitchen.

"JD, come here," Jordan called. "You know you can't be using those words, right?"

"I guess, Daddy. My teacher says 'No No' too," JD said, his face a squinched up frown. "She says she will wash our mouths with soap. Blahhhhh, Daddy," he said, making spitty noises.

"Maybe just a little hand soap," Danny laughed, then realized that Jordy might just turn the soap on him.

"When CAN I say words, Daddy?"

"When you're old enough."

"But I am a big boy, Daddy."

"Nope, not old enough yet. Promise me you'll try."

"K, but Daddy?"

"Mmm?"

"If I fall down and it hurts reeeeally bad and blood is on me, I can say 'shitoops'?"

"Yes, if that happens, you can, cause you'll be having big hurts and that calls for a very loud "Shitoops", I think."

"K, Daddy."

Danny snorted into his coffee. Griff muttered a soft 'Fuck me, Freddy' and walked out of the room.

That night, the shower steamy and the hot water easing away the aches and pains of the day, Jordan rubbed his soapy hands down Dan's back and over his shoulders, his thumbs working the knots out. Danny rolled his head and sighed as he pressed closer to Jordan, straddled in his lap on the tiled bench.

"That feels sooooo good. There.....there.....right there. Oh God."

Just as Jordan's hand, slippery with soap slid lower to ease away a different kind of ache, Danny threw his head back at the feelings he knew were coming and whacked his head against the tiled wall.

"Shit!" he yelped.

Jordan laughed, "What did you just say, Darlin'?"

"Shit-oops!" Danny grinned.

"I think I'm just gonna have to wash that naughty mouth out with soap," Jordan purred. "Or maybe just lick it clean."

Danny sighed and murmured, "Shitoops."


Griff sat at the kitchen table and rubbed his eyes, squinching them shut again and again.

"What's up with your eyes?" Jordan asked,.

"I can't seem to clear them. I keep getting these spots dancing across. It's like there's oil in them. It's these dang headaches."

"Time for a checkup," Markie said, "I'll call and get you an appointment."

"I'll be fine. Maybe next month."

Jordan laughed, "Give up now, Griffin. Markie will drag you."

"Okay, but just the eye doctor; not the other kind. You know how I hate them."

Markie frowned. "How long since you've had a total physical?"

"Don't start that, Hun. I hate all that poking and prodding."

"When?" she persisted.

"I guess to get in college," he mumbled.

"That was seven years ago. I'm making you an appointment this morning."

Griff sighed. He felt fine. What a waste of money. He looked over at Jordan. "Help me here."

"She's right, Griff. Those headaches have been bothering you for awhile now. You prolly just need glasses."

Griff groaned. He hated the thought of getting old.


Saturday dawned, blue sky, temperature in the 50s. Beautiful day for anyone crazy enough to be on the beach.

"You are so insane," Danny snorted.

"I have to. Look at that sky. Look at those waves. They're calling to me," Jordan answered as he struggled into his wetsuit.

"Yeah, I can hear them too. They're yelling, 'Come on in, you fool, so you can catch pneumonia and die'. Jordy, that water must be freezing."

"What a wussie boy," Jordan laughed, "Afraid of a little water."

He secured the bands around his ankles and let the top flop around his waist, his chest bare in the warm heat of their room. The electric blue wetsuit defined every muscle, every curve of his body. "Come with me, Dan. I'll help you."

"No, I think this wuss will just stay all toasty under this quilt. You go freeze your cute little ass off. See if I care."

"Oh, you'd care," Jordan chuckled. He leaned down and kissed Danny's cheek, ran his arms through the tight sleeves, adjusted the wrist and neck bands and zipped up before he went out the door. Danny could hear him pull the tarp off the board rack on the porch and slide his board out. He heard Markie scold him for being a dope and then his footsteps as he walked down the ramp to the sand.

This was one of the times Nic had warned him about. He couldn't do this with Jordy and he had to smile and let him go. He stood it as long as he could and then grabbed his braces, moving to the window to scan the water. He always worried. What if Jordy got a cramp? What if the board hit him in the head? What if the rip tide was too strong? Danny wouldn't be there to help him. But then, Ha! Lot of help he'd be! They'd both drown and well, that would just be the end. It was better that he just stay in the house with his braces and his quilt and let Jordy have his fun. He shuffled back to the sofa and threw his braces off, disgusted with himself.


Jordan paddled out, the first hit of the icy water making his eyes pop. The waves weren't huge, but they rolled in nicely and, after the shock of cold wore off, it felt wonderful to be out here on the water. He rode one soft wave in and turned the board back out, then stopped, the look in Dan's eyes slowing his motions. Dan wasn't a wuss. God, why had he said that? Talk about selfish! Paddling back toward the shore, Jordan kicked himself.


The door flew open, a dripping Jordan standing in the doorway. Without a word, he walked over to the closet, leaving a trail of wet footprints. Rustling through, he pulled out Dan's wetsuit and squished over to the sofa.

"Get naked, SurferBoi. I wanna see if you've still got the moves."

Danny watched all this with squinted eyes. "I so don't want to get wet, Jordy. You go have fun."

Jordan sat down on the floor by the sofa. "Do you really know so little about me after all these years? I only have fun if I do stuff with you. Everything else is what takes up space until I'm with you."

Dan felt something inside loosen inside. He tried one last time. He frowned, wanting Jordan not to feel trapped by him.

"Okay, you have buttface," Jordan said sadly.

"Huh?"

"I mean, you look like you're gonna say 'But'."

Danny sighed, "But,........"

Jordan rolled his eyes.

"But, you need to do all the things you like. I can't surf, Jordy. Be honest, you know I can't do things like you do. I can't be spontaneous; just jump up and run out to the ocean. I want to, God knows, but I can't."

Jordan rested his head against the edge of the soft material. He felt Dan's hand touch his wet hair. He wondered if they'd ever really get past this. They would always be in love, of that he had no doubt, but would they ever be able to get past this?

"Come with me."

"I........,"

"Come with me."

"Don't you understand, Jordy? There's only so much one person can accept about another, even if they love them."

Jordan felt a wave of frustration, laced with a flash of anger. "Don't YOU understand, Daniel? There will never be too much."

They sat silently, Danny's fingers touching Jordan's wet blond hair, spreading the strands. Then slowly, he straightened, pulled off his sweater and his jeans. "If I fall?"

Jordan smiled, "I'll catch you. I'll always catch you."

*

Nic and Sam watched the two lone surfers sharing one board in that cold water.

"He's so much like you," Sam sighed. "Will he ever learn?"

"He knows," Nic said quietly. "He fights it every day. It's almost impossible to accept that kind of unquestioning love.'

Sam smiled, "I remember."


The week began its inchworm creep, everyone working, schooling, busy, their days filled with all that nothing that seemed so important at the time.

Dinner on Tuesday night was noisy, everyone reporting in.

"Still feel like shit?" Easy laughed, grinning sympathetically at Jordan.

"I'm bedder," Jordan mumbled, his head still snotty and his throat scratchy. He had the cough that would prolly never die. He refused to look at Danny.

"Danny, I hope you've said 'I told you so' like a million times," Markie shook her head. "I swear, I feel like I have a house full of little boys. What were you thinking getting in that frigid water? At least, Dan isn't sick too."

"Shud up!" Jordan mumbled.

"Nah, I'm being a good boy," Danny laughed. "Besides, he's bigger than me and I'd get kicked outta bed." He reached over and took Jordan's hand.

"Hey, Griff, isn't your doctor's appointment tomorrow?" Val asked.

Griff grimaced. He'd been hoping no one would remember then he could just conveniently forget it and would be a big shit-oops. "Yeah."

"What's on for the weekend?" Markie asked. "I need to go to the store if we're gonna grill out."

"I'll go with," Val put in. "Why don't we do a pulled pork? We've got time."

"A what?" several voices chimed in.

Val laughed, "It's a southern thing. You get a pork roast, use a rub, put it in the fridge for two days and then grill it."

"You cook it and we will come," Easy grinned.

"Oh, I think Markie and I will buy it and rub it and put it in the fridge and then you will cook it," she laughed.

The talk turned to the grill and the weather, Danny's new hours for his seniors therapy class and the house down the street that was for sale.

The kids just kinda drifted away from the table, carrying their dishes to the kitchen and grabbing an apricot fried pie and their jackets on their way out the door.

"Old people are so boring," Gabriel snorted. "I'm never getting old."

"Me either," Mitch laughed, "I'm always gonna talk about cool stuff; not who's sick and grills and groceries."

"Griff, can we light a fire?" Gabriel called back into the house.

"Yeah, watch the little guys." He got up and stood by the window, just in case.

The starter wood was in a bucket by the shed. JD carried an armload and dumped it in the circle of rocks. Chris wadded up a few sheets of newspaper from the box and Gabriel laid four smallish logs catywompus. Mitch got the matches from the ledge on the porch and struck one on the side of the box, touching it to the newspaper. The paper caught and they watched as the small chunks of starter began to burn.

"I love to burn Christmas wrapping paper," Gabriel said, "The fire is all different colors."

The boys all sat on the thinking log, their fronts getting warm and their backs freezing. JD called Fiddle and then he and Chris ran in big wide circles trying to catch the happy dog.

"How you doing?" Gabriel asked quietly.

Mitch sighed. "It's getting better. My mom and dad are so good and all my friends help a lot. I miss Marc soooo much, but I am doing better now"

"You know he wouldn't want you to be sad and alone forever, right?"

"I know. It's just that one day we were together and then Bam! It was over and he did what he did and I was all alone."

"You're not ever alone, Mitch." Gabriel took a deep breath and then touched the back of Mitch's hand with his fingertips. He felt Mitch stiffen up, as if he was going to jerk his hand away. He knew he wasn't Marc. He never could be, but he had liked Mitch for such a long time now. It would be okay if they were just friends, but he had to try just once.

Slowly, as if making a decision, Mitch turned his hand over and they just pressed their fingers together, slightly warm, slightly sweaty fingers. It was enough for now.

"I'll think," Mitch whispered.

"Promise?"

"Promise."


"Jordy, have you thought about it enough yet?"

Jordan knew precisely. "Yeah, I talked to the guidance counselor at school. She said that we would have to go through a lot of interviews and people checking out our house and the family. Are you ready for that, Dan?"

Danny wanted kids. He wanted to make sure that even just one child grew up strong and sure. If he could be part of that, if he could help, he wanted to so badly. The only thing that worried him was Jordan. What if it drove a wedge between them? Jordan had to want it too. He had never once said what he really felt.

Under the covers, the house quiet, Danny turned until he was on his side. "Come right here," he whispered, pulling gently at Jordan's arms.

Nose to nose and toes to toes, breathing each other's breath, Danny finally asked. "Jordy, tell me how you feel about all this. If you don't want it, I'll never mention it again."

Jordan Lawrence had lain like this so many times over the years with his beautiful blue-eyed boy. Through good times and bad, if they could just be like this, they could work anything out. He felt how tight Dan was holding himself, as if he wasn't even taking a breath.

Jordan knew how much love Dan had to give. He wasn't afraid of not getting his share. There was this loving, wonderful 'daddy' inside Dan that would never come out because he had chosen to spend his life with Jordan.....unless Jordan opened the door.

It was a scary decision; one that would totally change their lives. Could he have a child in his life and then let him go? What if they could never adopt but always had to let them go? He felt Danny shiver, waiting for the answer. He smiled.

"Dan, we make decisions together. You up for all that goes into them even deciding whether or not we can?"

"Yes."

"Tell me what you want from me."

Danny said softly, "I need to know, truthfully, if you will want this 100%. There will bad days."

Jordan shook his head. "I think if we can survive Joshua Daniel Latham/Lawrence, we can pretty much survive anything. I talked to Griff and he's cool with cutting a door into Nic's old room. We can do this if you want it, Dan."

"And you, Jordan? What do you want?"

"I want you to be happy. I want everything you want. I want your smile."

A kiss, a sigh, arms tightening, bodies growing warmer.

"I love you more than you'll ever know."

"I think I know."

"Are we doing something really dumb?"

"Probably."

"Well, then...."

"But, we're doing it together."


Griff sat quietly on the end of the examining table, listening to the doctor. He'd had blood taken last Monday and had fretted silently ever since. He hated doctors.

He was so relieved. He'd gone to this appointment thinking there was something really wrong. With the headaches, he'd been thinking brain tumor. Hearing the doctor tell him it wasn't as bad as he'd thought calmed him down. He hadn't wanted to worry Markie by telling her that he'd been feeling so punk. He had just pretty much decided something was wrong and he'd just deal with it alone. Now, he'd have to tell her something.

"Your blood pressure is 175/98 and your cholesterol level is much too high at 280," the doctor was explaining. 'The blurred vision is a result of the blood pressure. I see on your questionnaire that you smoke and drink."

"I smoke occasionally and have a few beers," Griff said defensively. "That won't kill me."

"You exercise?"

"I'm a football coach, so that would be a big yes. I play racketball, I surf, I go to the gym every Saturday. Yeah, I exercise, that's why this is such a crock."

"And your mother is taking blood pressure medications?"

"Yes, for as long as I can remember."

"How about your father?"

Griff frowned, "I have no idea. He left when I was small."

"You're in excellent shape, Mr. Langley. Your weight is right where it should be at 180. Let's have you back in here for a stress test and get you started on blood pressure meds."

"What about the cholesterol? I don't want to take a bunch of pills."

"We'll see if we can get it down with the bp meds, but I'm gonna make a calculated guess here that this might be hereditary. Let me see you back in here next week at this same time. By then the bp meds will have kicked in and we'll take another look see. Check with the nurse about the blood test."

As Griff walked to the truck, he knew he was going to have to tell Markie, but he'd just play it off as no big deal. It wasn't anyway.


Easy watched Val mix up the spices for the pork rub. He loved to watch her hands as she worked on just about anything. She played the piano and it delighted him just to watch her fingers dance across the keys. He had gone to visit her classroom one day and watched quietly as she taught her students, opening those stubborn little minds. There was actually nothing about her that didn't delight him.

That's why he had to tell her. Tell her what he had done. He wanted so much to ask her to marry him. He wanted those hands to hold his children. He had no idea what she would say.

*

Easy Langley was a big man, grown from a small undernourished street hustler. At six feet three, he was intimidating. He knew it and never used it. He'd been intimidated enough as a child to know the feeling it gave others.

Life had thrown him some really heavy curves. He'd dealt with being black in a white world, being alone with no family. He'd found himself in Tampa one sultry night, not caring if he lived or died. Knowing no one else cared either.

It had been the end of his world.

The water had been dark and murky, the air hot and humid. There was no reason to go back out on Dale Mabry and hustle another trick. Why did he need anymore of a life that only knocked him down every time he got up?

He sat on the seawall, mesmerized by a blinking red light off in the distance. All he had to do was slip off the wall into the black water. No one would know. No one would care. He had done too much, seen too much.

He heard the splash, heard the loud thunk as something big hit the wall. It was none of his concern. He watched the light.

A low groan caught his attention. He saw a figure lying on the sidewalk. Lowering himself from the wall, he walked back to see a boy in a heap.

"Hey, man. You okay?" And the rest was history. His history. He could have slid on into that water. He could have walked away. He didn't. He would always believe that Jordan Lawrence was his own private angel. He'd never told anyone what he was going to do that night. He just thanked God every night that he hadn't.

Watching Val, he felt the words build up inside his head. It was time.


Griff got home just as everyone else was washing up for dinner.

"You were a long time," Markie said worriedly.

"Nothing to be concerned about. I'm fine. Just a bit of high blood pressure. Nothing to worry about," he threw out to the whole group.

"Doesn't your mom have high blood pressure?" Jordan asked.

Yeah. Doc thinks that's why I do." He sat the medicine bottle on the table. "Gotta take one in the morning and one at night." He didn't look directly at Markie. "No big deal."

Danny asked quietly, "What about your cholesterol? That goes along with blood pressure."

'Dang,' Griff thought. "Yeah, it's kinda up there too. I guess I need to do something."

"They've got meds for that now," Jordan offered, watching Markie's face.

She walked over to Griffin and wrapped her arms around his neck. "We will talk about this privately, you know."

"Oh yeah," he smiled, shaking his head. "That I do know."


Saturday was another perfect day.

"Wanna go surfin'?" Danny teased, rubbing Jordan's neck. Jordan answered with the 5,000,000,000th cough of the past week.

"Guess not."

The pulled pork was delicious, the day was warm, up in the high 60s. The kids all wore their brand new green jerseys with the blue writing. Across the front was emblazoned LLLT with each boy's name written across his shoulders. Danny had gotten one made for everyone in the family. He pulled his over his head and grinned.

"Cool, huh?!"

Jordan eased up behind him and whispered, "You WILL wear that tonight. We'll play football star/groupie."

"I get to be the football star?"

Jordan breathed, "Oh yeah, I'll tell you tonight which position."

Danny snorted and shoved at him, tossing him the jersey that said "Jordy" across the back.

*

JD was chasing Fiddle in and out to the waves. "Stay close," Danny called. He sat down on the log to watch the little guy squeal every time a gull wheeled around for the bread crusts he was tossing up.

JD waved a hand and poked at a clump of seaweed washed up by the white foam with his toe. He'd found some real treasures in the stuff that floated all the way from Africa. Daddy said that one person's junk was another man's treasure.

He had a cigar box where he put all his finds. He bet they were worth a lot of money, maybe a million billion dollars, but he'd never ever sell his treasures. He took them out every night and Daddy or Papa D would tell him stories about each and every one.

He'd found a little blue bottle with the bones of a crab inside, a gold button from a pirate captain's coat, a bone that Papa D said looked mighty like the leg bone of a baby Tricerabops, a shiny rock with little bits of blue and silver running through it, a big purple and while marble and bottle caps from stuff Daddy said we don't drink here.

Whenever JD was feeling kinda blue (he never understood why Mommy thought he was blue, cause when he looked at his arms, he was the same old JD), he carried his box over to Daddy and Papa D's and crawl in their bed. They'd tell him to pick one thing and then they'd tell him where it came from and why it had arrived just in time for JD to find it. He'd listen sleepily and wake up the next morning tucked up in his own bed. They were magic stories.

He poked at the clump of seaweed and yelped when it kinda poked back. "Papa D, there's be's sumthin' in the weeds."

"Get back from it, Punkin," Danny called. "Jordy, come and see what JD's found."

Jordan looked up from the fire and smiled. JD was hopping from one foot to another and squealing. "Hold on, I'm coming."

He ruffled Danny's soft curls as he passed him and went to see what JD had found now.

Poking carefully in the mess of soggy seaweed, Jordan found a small five armed little creature. "OMG!! Dan, you're so not gonna believe this."

"What, Daddy? What did I find?"

"JD, you found your starfish." He reached down and lifted the little fella clear of the weeds.

"Is he 'live, Daddy? I may hold him?"

"Yeah, see the little bubbles in the wet sand? He's alive and kickin', but he won't be for long, unless we get him back in the water."

JD held out his little cupped hands, "Me, Daddy. Let me."

Jordan picked up the little creature carefully and laid it in JD's hands. "Go show Papa D, then we'll put him back where he belongs."

"K," JD answered, as he ran up the sand to show Dan. "Look, Papa D, a starfish. He's like a star, see?"

Danny rubbed the little fella with the tip of his finger to feel the roughness of its covering. "That's so totally cool, JD. Now, go put him back in the ocean."

JD hesitated, then asked shyly, "I cannot keep him? I finded him."

Danny smiled, "Punkin, would you put him in your treasure box?"

"No, well, yes. Maybe in a bowl for fish like my friend Andy has."

"If you were a starfish, would you want to live in a glass bowl or the big wide ocean with all your starfish friends?"

JD thought, his face wrinkled in concentration. "K, I will put him back. I bet his Mommy be's worrying."

He started for the surf and then stopped. "Wait, I just thinked of something." He took off running, the little starfish clasped in his hands.

"Mitch.....Gabrel............Look!!" He held out his hands and the boys saw the little creature.

"JD, you found a starfish," Mitch smiled. It was the first real smile Gabriel had seen since he had lost Marc. It lit his face.

"Me and you and Gabrel.....we will make a difence," JD glowed. "Come."

They walked to water's edge, took off their shoes and socks and rolled up their pants. "We can't just fling him back in," Gabriel explained.

Walking a few steps out, the cold water burning their toes, the boys watched JD open his hands and the little starfish sink to the bottom and lie very still.

"Maybe he does not want to leave me?" JD said hopefully.

"I think he's waiting for us giants to go away so he can run home," Mitch laughed. "Let's let him go now, JD." He lifted the small boy and set him on his hip, hearing a little sniffle. "We have to let him go, JD, it's time."

He looked over at Gabriel and saw the question in his eyes. Mitch held out his other hand and sighed when he felt Gabriel lace their fingers together.

It was time.

Jordan slid his arm around Danny's shoulders. "Well, life goes on. How old are they?"

"Seventeen."

Jordan sighed, a memory of a fragile curly haired boy in a wheelchair flashing in his mind. "God bless them both. I love you, Darlin'."

"Right back at ya, Green Eyes."


Sunday afternoon, Easy asked everyone to come out into the sunshine and sit on the thinking log. He cornered Gabriel, asking him to take JD and Chris to the Shop&Go for a soda.

"Is everything okay?" Gabriel asked, frowning.

"Yeah, totally fine. We just have some grownup stuff to talk about." He handed Gabriel money and watched the two younger boys grab his hands as they started off down the quiet street.

It was time. He had thought and thought until he was losing his mind over this. He was just going to tell everyone at the same time, so they could hear him say it. Then, it was up to each of his friends and to Val to forgive him, if they could.

Jordan and Dan sat in their swing in the cool sunny breeze off the Atlantic. Jackets open, the sun felt so good.

Markie sat close by Griff, not having been able to get anything out of him. Griff just said that this was Easy's story to tell. He smiled at his brother and pulled Val down on the log by his side.

Easy had come such a long way from that boy under the bridge. He never dreamed that he'd have a college degree and a good job doing exactly what he needed to make him feel worthwhile. He didn't deserve it, and it was one of the reasons his secret was driving him quietly insane. What would they think when they knew? How could he explain it so they'd understand? He stood awkwardly in front of the people he loved best in the world and felt like he was that raggedy little boy again with the dirty face and the ripped Lakers tanktop.

Griff cleared his throat. "Ez, do you want me to tell it?" Griffin had known all these years, ever since Easy had had to tell his mom. There could be no secrets if Delores Langley was to adopt this ragamuffin child. She had to know the truth.

Easy had told her, tears running into his mouth as he sobbed. She had listened and when he was done, she had gathered the small boy into her arms and held him tight.

"You're mine now, Samuel Arthur Langley, and we will never speak of that again. I wish I had known your mother; I would have helped. She'd be with us today. You nevermind now. You belong here."

"No, it's my story to tell," he sighed. Leaning down, kissing Val lightly, he caressed her cheek.

"When I was little, my father made us move from one place to another, just one step ahead of the police. His policy was that if someone had it and he wanted it, he took it. He used to make me go with him and distract people so he could steal what he wanted. I was always so terrified that I would be taken away from my Mama. He said if I didn't help him, he'd throw me in the river and I'd never see her again."

He heard gasps and groans as his friends pictured the little boy that he had been and the life he'd been forced to live.

"I was only five. I believed everything he said and, when he hit me or Mama, I couldn't do anything. Mama said to just go to another place in my head. To be somewhere else, then it wouldn't hurt so much. It's funny, but the place I would go was a place much like this because I saw a picture of the beach one time in a book." He looked around and smiled a sad smile. "I guess that's one reason I love to be here. I know it's safe."

Val tried to stand up and go to him, but he shook his head. She sat back down, tearing flowing.

"I didn't get to go to school much because we were always moving and when I did get to go, the people always wanted to investigate the family after a few days, so my father would take us away again, After awhile, he stopped letting me go at all. Mama taught me to read."

"Ez," Jordan sighed.

"Something happened one night that changed everything. I was eight. I remember that Mama was sitting at the little table in the trailer we were living in trying to show me how count money. We were laughing because we had made fake money out of rocks and I couldn't tell the dimes from the nickels. We didn't get to laugh much and Mama looked so happy. I think back now and she never laughed. What was there to laugh about? It's my last memory of her face."

He reached in his pocket and pulled out a creased faded photograph. "This is all I have to remember her by." He looked at it and slowly, the tears began to run down his face.

Val jumped up and put her arms around his waist. "I don't care what you say next. I love you."

"My father came home....home....that's a laugh. We never had one. He was drunk, as usual, and stupidly angry because we were laughing. Mama pulled me to her and then pushed me to the floor behind her. If I had just been bigger, older, anything. I wasn't very strong because we didn't eat very much healthy food. I was so scared of him. He hit Mama, hit her hard. She shielded me and that made him angrier. He pulled her away and hit her again. I can still hear the crack when her head hit the corner of that table. I crawled over to her, but she didn't move. All I remember is crying. He lifted me off the floor and threw me on the couch. Told me to shut up. I tried to go to my secret place in my mind, but I couldn't. He flicked his cigarette at me, calling me a whiny little shit and stumbled back to the bed and fell on it, so drunk he passed out, I guess. I ran to Mama and tugged and tugged until I got her to the door. I'm not sure what I was doing other than getting her as far away from him as I could. I got her down the three little metal steps and onto the little patch of grass by an old tree. Mama didn't weigh much; she usually gave me most of her food." He gulped in air and wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.

"Easy," Danny soothed, "We love you."

"I didn't know what to do next. I sat with Mama's head in my lap, just combing her hair with my fingers. My hand was sticky. She didn't move. She wouldn't answer me. I think I knew, but I just sat. When the smoke started to billow from the open door, I just sat. I waited for him to come running out, but he didn't."

"You were in shock, Easy," Markie whispered.

"Most of me was yes, I know that now, but there was a part of me that just sat there, in the dirt, my Mama's head in my lap, watching the fire eat up the trailer, hoping he never came out that door." He sat down on the log, Val grasping his hand tightly.

"He never did. I could have run to get someone. I could have tried to wake him up. I could have called the fire department. I just sat, my Mama's blood on my hands."

Without a word, Jordan and Dan both moved over to the log crouching in front of their friend.

"I hear people come running. Someone felt my Mama, tried to pull me away. I heard someone say she was dead. Someone else said 'good riddance, they were trash'. I was trash and I couldn't move. The fire truck came and one of the firemen told me to get out of the way. He pulled me up and stuck me by that tree. I heard him tell someone to call the police to come get me. I ran. I just ran."

Chests heaving with blocked back sobs, Easy's four best friends comforted him.

"You ran to us, Easy."

"We caught you."

"You're safe now."

Jordan thought back to the day he had found Easy under that bridge and the only thing he had to call his own was well worn faded photograph. He'd kept this inside all these years.

"I never went back. I left my Mama. She never had a proper funeral. I live with that every day." He didn't mention his father.

"We'll take care of that, Ez. I'm glad you got this out. I just wish you hadn't hidden this all this time. It changes nothing about how we love you."

"It's why I do the job I do," he smiled weakly. "I don't want boys to ever feel the way I felt that night, never have to leave their Mama like I did."

Val had never loved him as much as she did right this minute. "Samuel Arthur Langley," she said quietly, taking his hand in hers. "Will you marry me?"

Easy's eyes widened and he stared at her. "What? That's my line."

"Well, I thought I'd get it in first. This way you know it was totally my idea," she smiled through all her tears.

Easy took a deep breath. "Will YOU marry me?"

"Of course I will. I've been waiting for months."

Griff punched Easy in the arm, "Told ya."

"Easy," Danny said softly, "We'll take care of your Mama. You know she's watching all this with a big smile on her face. I bet Nic has already told her how wonderful you are and how proud she can be of her son."

"Thank you, guys," Easy smiled slowly. "I was so afraid to tell you, even though Griff knew the story."

"It would take a lot more than that to make our feelings for you ever change," Jordan smiled. "You're our brother; we trust you and you've saved our lives so many times over the years that you've taken care of any debt you might feel. Your Mama protected you just like you protect us and all the kids."

The 'kids' ran noisily back into the yard. "Look what I found?" Gabriel laughed, pulling Mitch into the circle. "Hey old guys, wanna play us in soccer so we can cream ya? You can even have the 'girls'."

"We can beat ya with one arm tied behind our backs," Chris giggled.

Life got back on track. Squealing soccer players, rules bent to include tickling and tossing, the family of the house on the beach had walked through yet another fire and found their way to the other side.


"Jordy?"

"Mmm?"

"I thought I was gonna turn inside out today when Easy was telling that story. I was trying not to cry, but it wasn't working. I hope he knows we love him and what happened was not anything he could control."

"I think he knows. He said he couldn't ask Val to marry him until she knew. I think she let him know that she loves him."

"He was eight, Jordy."

"I know. That means he was on his own, doing whatever he had to to survive for a lot of years. We'll probably never know the whole story, but hopefully, he's put it away."

"I think about all the years he spent taking care of me," Danny sighed, "And I didn't know how much he was hurting."

"But, Dan, I think he put his hurt away and learned to love because of you."

"And you, Jordy."

Danny slid closer and pulled Jordan into his arms. "The starfish...How do we know when we make a difference?"

Jordan kissed Danny's forehead and then his cheek, then his soft rosy lips. "I guess when we do everything we can to try to make the people we love happy."

"Easy has made a difference."

"Yep."

Danny snuggled and wiggled. "Jordy, does it count when I make you happy?"

Jordan laughed, "It does with me. I will give you a big starfish kiss right on your......................He eased his hand down Danny's warm belly. "Whoa, I'm making a BIG difference right now." His hand froze as they heard the door creak and a little tap tap tap.

"Daddy? Papa D?"

"Hold that thought," Jordan sighed, "Come on in, Punkin."

JD landed with a soft plunk in the middle of the bed and shimmied his way between his two dads. "I was kinda worried bout my starfish."

"He's fine, Sweetie. He's all tucked in his starfish bed and his Mama is telling him a little boy story."

Giggling, JD said, "Tell me a little starfish story please."

Jordan looked over the top of JD's blond head into Danny's shining blue eyes. 'You or me?' his eyes asked.

Danny winked. "I bet you think starfish live in the sea, don't you, JD?"

"Yeah, my starfish be's all wet and he was in the seaweed, so's I guess he is in the ocean, yes."

Danny took on a singsong tone and Jordan lay back smiling. "Once there was a little star in the sky who wanted to live on the land. He asked his Mama and daddy, but they told him 'No', that he was a star in the heavens and you can't be what you're not. But, the little starfish kept watching all the children running around on the ground and he wanted to be a little boy. So, one night, he wriggled and he giggled," Danny tickled JD, "And he got really really brave, let go of the clouds and fell.

Down, down, down he fell until he landed......in the ocean. He sunk like a stone to the bottom of the ocean and lay very still. This wasn't where the children lived. This was where the fish and the whales lived. He didn't want to be a fish. He was very sad and sorry he'd fallen away from the clouds.

"Oh Papa D, this a very sad story," JD sniffed. 'What happened to the little starfish? He nebber saw his Mama again?"

Jordan was rolling his eyes and dan held up his hand, 'Wait, you guys. That's not the end of the story."

Jordan groaned, "I hope not."

"The next thing he knew, a beautiful silver ladder spun by angels lowered into the ocean and his Mama climbed down, found her little starfish boy and took him back up to the heavens where he belonged."

"Oh, better, Papa D," JD sighed. "So, he went back home and ebrything was good, the end?"

"Yep," Danny smiled, "Everything was good. The End!"

"But," JD cranked up, "Why did the little star want to be a boy? I wouldn't wanna be a star......I don't think."

Jordan shot Dan a 'look what you started' roll of the eyes and tried to explain. 'Sometimes people, or stars, aren't satified with who they are or what they have. They want to be something different."

"How many feets do the starfishes have? Which one be's his head?" JD got a giggle attack. "This be's my head," he snorted, waving his foot in the air.

"So, this must be your nose," Danny grabbed his toe and tickled.

After a fierce battle of starfish arms and legs, JD's eyes began to droop. "Maybe my little starfish is sleepy like me. I hope he's happy."


Nic watched as his family settled in for the night. "Sam love, so many things for them to get past. So many decisions. I hope they're ready for the changes."

"Nicholas, that's the only thing we missed, you know.....kids. But, I still wouldn't change a thing."

Nic sighed, stood and held out his hand, pulling Sam to his feet. They turned and smiled at the beautiful black woman standing beside them. "Your son has turned out just fine, hasn't he? I think you'll be a grandmother soon."

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